The characters in this book just leap off the page. You obviously have a lot of affection for these people. Why did you choose to focus on these particular characters?
Things began to fall into place for me with the narrative when I realized everyone connected to the Norton was an outsider. The melancholic doctor, Dr. Norton, who existed on the margins of Richmond society and who longed to be a figure of consequence; the German immigrants who created the Weinstrasse in Missouri then became targets of the Prohibition war when the Drys linked arms with anti-German propagandists during WWI; the bootleggers who kept the Norton alive; the hog farmer-turned-reluctant savior, Jim Held, who resuscitates the Weinstrasse more than two generations later; and of course—Jenni McCloud. That was the spine—or the vine, if you will—that ties everyone and everything together.
At that point, the book became meaningful to me, because I knew I had found my way into the story—I knew that I was telling a story that could get past the surface of things. Of course, the surface in this instance is pretty wonderful; it’s a rich and lively story, with ups and downs and ups again. But when I understood what the Norton represented, I knew there was a book—or anyway, a book I would want to write. I’ve always been attracted to people on the margins, to outsiders, to people who don’t fit, and the Norton, I came to see, was this wonderful metaphor of outsiderness. The fact that it’s an interesting grape that makes an interesting wine, that mattered much less to me than what the Norton embodied. In that sense, I didn’t see myself writing a book about wine. I couldn’t imagine writing a book on Pinot Noir, for example, or Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay.
The book is also a very American story. In some ways, of course, it makes sense that the American grape would produce a very American story. But how conscious were you of writing a version of American history through the character, I guess you could say, of the grape?
Absolutely, the grape is a character. And as fascinating to me—as larger-than-life to me—as the people who populate and drive the narrative along. As to how conscious I was—I wasn’t, at the start. I don’t think as a writer I’m ever that conscious of anything at the start. It was a series of discoveries. Understanding that this was a story of outsiders was a big one, and that led me to understand just how American this story is, how quintessentially American. And in Jenni you have sort of the quintessential American, wholly reinvented and completely and utterly original.
She’s Gatsby and his dazzling dream—his dream of self-conception. She’s Huck Finn lighting out for the territories, alone and unafraid. She’s a pioneer. She’s got more courage than an army. She thinks big, she risks big, she conquers. I think her singular story of self-determination, her attempt to find her own, unique voice in this world, joins her with the doctor two centuries earlier. I see a lot of the early American in her, the rugged pioneer, starting over, making it new.
The book is also a chronicle of your friendship, which is interesting and not at all common. She’s not just a subject, a character in the story.
Right. And really, that’s just a reflection of reality. I liked Jenni from the moment I met her, and I was fortunate to become her friend, and learn from her—to learn not just what Norton is, but what it means. She was my teacher, my guide, my guru. I am a Nortonian because of her.
Describe the process of researching and writing. There’s a great amount of buried history you dig up.
It took about four years. And almost never came to be, if you want to know the truth, because there were so many challenges along the way: my father and his long, debilitating illness—I took care of him for a year and a half; the birth of my son; and, of course, my job—I’m the food and wine editor of The Washingtonian, and also the magazine’s restaurant critic. I never took an official leave of absence, but worked along the margins, as it were—when no one else was working, sandwiched between everything else I was doing—for the book. I wrote late at night and early in the morning and in hospitals and really anywhere I could find a moment—make a moment—for myself. I took short and frequent research trips instead of long ones. I spent a year and a half, two years of 15, 16 hour days and much of that time I worried that I still was never going to finish what I’d started four years earlier. And I was desperate to finish, to come full circle with my reading and writing—the book had ceased to be a diversion or even a compelling side project and had become a full-fledged obsession.
The book blends history and travelogue, and biography and memoir. Why? Why not just a history?
At one point, I thought the book would be a history. At another, I thought it would be a history and a biography, a double biography of the doctor and Jenni. I didn’t set out to blur genres, although in retrospect it was probably inevitable, since I’ve always liked crossing the lines in whatever I’ve written. Even my restaurant reviews are sometimes a blend of profile and essay and review. It also seems fitting to employ a hybrid form to write about a hybrid. But of course, all this is justification after the fact. The reason I wound up with the form I did is because it just felt organic and natural to do it this way—once all those elements were in place, the book found its rhythm and the narrative began to move, really move. And movement’s everything in a long, sprawling work like this.
You say that the Norton makes a good fine wine, and that the best Nortons being produced are every bit as good as those wines made from varietals we’ve all heard of before, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, etc. So how come nobody has heard of the Norton?
That’s one of the great things to me about this, that in this media-saturated age, there are still things—important things—that exist below the awareness of the majority of people. There are great artists nobody knows a thing about, terrific writers whose work has not come to light, composers of serious music who deliver pizza at night to make ends meet (I’m not exaggerating, here—I’m describing a good friend of mine). And in the case of the Norton, you have a wine that has been around for nearly two centuries, a wine that has always been in our midst—the American wine, the one and only … and nobody knows anything about it.
Wine in America is a bigger, more interesting picture than most people realize. What’s known, what’s pushed, is California, and, more recently, the wines of Oregon and Washington. There are some really good wines to be had, now, in many states throughout the country, but you wouldn’t know about it to go into a good restaurant and scan a wine list, or to read the big wine magazines that set the trends in the industry. One of the problems is distribution. The wineries that produce Norton, for instance, are much smaller than some of the big, well-established outfits you find on the West Coast, and then there’s the fact of getting them out to the public—it’s difficult. But the quality is undeniably there. There’s excellent wine being made in Missouri, in the heart of the old Weinstrasse. Jon Held at Stone Hill Winery is producing great Nortons, among others. Outside of a few neighboring states, though, who has heard of Stone Hill and Norton?
What were you surprised to discover in the course of your research?
I was astonished to learn not only that there is wine being made in Missouri, but that Missouri was the epicenter of American wine more than a century ago—the Napa Valley of the 19th century, with more than a hundred wineries. We tend to think of American wine as having emerged on the world stage with the famous Judgment of Paris panel, when a selection of California wines at a blind tasting were deemed the equal, if not superior to, the wines of the noble French vineyards. It was a groundbreaking moment, for sure. But the Norton’s success—it was pronounced one of the great red wines of the world at a world’s fair in Vienna, and won another big medal five years later, in Paris—occurred a full century earlier, in the 1870s.
This was a big moment culturally. Twain was writing a new kind of novel, rugged and earthy and wild. Whitman was doing the same with his poetry. You had the first stirrings of what would become jazz, a music that broke from the models of Europe. The coming century was being spoken of as the “American Century” Norton was of a piece with these developments. It seemed to promise some of the same excitement. Here was this odd, intriguing blend of the Old World and the New World—the gumbo of grapes, departing boldly from European notions of what a wine ought to be.
What’s also interesting about this time, the 1870s, is that just as American wine is ascendant, European wine is on the brink of ruin as a result of the phylloxera devastation. Through the efforts of a number of Americans, many of them with connections to the Weinstrasse, the vineyards of France were ultimately saved. But for a while there, before grafting was settled upon as a solution, one of the much-discussed plans was to repopulate the ravaged fields with American grapes, including the much-celebrated Norton.
You write that Prohibition didn’t kill the Norton, although it obviously did a great bit of damage.
It wasn’t Prohibition so much as the aftermath of Prohibition—the changes wrought in the culture, wine culture and American culture both, after repeal. One of the great ironies to me is that had there not been the great rupture of Prohibition, and the traumatic pulling up of vines by the Feds, Virginia and Missouri today would be regarded with something like reverence—the oldest, most noble wine region in the country. The Norton vines I saw in Missouri are old and tangled and gnarled, and as all wine lovers know, the best wines are made from old vines. Some of those vines eluded the Feds, fortunately, and there are Norton vines that date back to before the Civil War.
When the Norton returned, nearly 5 decades after Prohibition, times had changed, and tastes had changed. California became the model—the only model that mattered. And here’s another irony of the rupture. In Virginia and Missouri, winemakers in the ’60s and ’70s now had to go to California to gain the knowledge they needed to make wine, knowledge they had passed west. They became casualties of the loss of collective memory.
Americans drank a much wider variety of wines in the 19th century—wines with names like Scuppernong and Herbemont, Ives and Lenoir. The collective palate was much more accepting and embracing of difference.
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